There were eight only of us left. All veterans of the battle that was fought out a week ago. Eight remained, too stubborn to die. Or too stupid to.
We were survivors of the Battle against the Droom. Little did we know it would be known by everyone else as The Fairfield Massacre. All we cared about was surviving the day. And the night.
I dropped against the cave wall when Captain Gifford announced a short break. He didn’t look too well. Hell, we all look like shit.
I took out the bottle and put it against my lips. The strong liquor only released me from my memories for three sweet seconds. Then, images of how this all had started returned, mocking me in my misery.
Ten thousand of us had left the city of Hardbridge, our polished armours glittering in the sun and chins held up proudly. The citizens cheered on us, Saviours of the Kingdom. The army that would finally rid them of the horrible beasts that had invaded it.
Three days later, we had reached the northern border. Our leader, General Bannister, had given us a speech that evening.
“Men,” he had yelled to us, “we are standing at the edge of a page of History! Behind me is the lair of the foulest demons that the Seven Hells have ever spawned.”
He paused and seemed to look at each of us. If there’s one thing General Bannister was, it would be a great speaker. Too bad he had proved to be a bad strategist.
“Men,” he had yelled again, “tomorrow we will fight the Droom, and tomorrow we shall overcome!”
Ten thousand mouths had cheered at that. I had cheered along, and would have slashed away at windmills if he had ordered me to.
“Men,” Bannister had yelled instead, “tomorrow, we will teach those reptiles a lesson they will never forget. Tomorrow, we will smoke them out of their nests and kick their scaly asses back to wherever they came from!”
We all exulted now. Someone shouted, “Gone with the Droom!” and many took it over. We could have defeated the Titans of Garwhein at that moment. Or at least we thought we could.
General Bannister looked smug, having them exactly where he wanted. He raised his right hand and waited for the rumbling to die out.
He died first.
A dark, snake-like creature with glowing red eyes suddenly jumped on the knoll he was standing atop, and plunged its clawed hand into the unprotected chest of the General. Blood gushed out of the leader’s wide-opened mouth as the beast withdrew its hand, pulling out the beating heart of its victim. Bannister’s corpse dropped to the ground.
The Droom turned to us, where panic had meanwhile struck. It held the dripping heart in the air and howled a challenge at us, causing all hairs on my body to rise.
Ten thousand soldiers, but nobody could have prepared us for this. The primal scream was suddenly answered from all sides, and hundreds of those vile creatures started feasting upon us.
Not all of us fled. Some were lucky enough to reach their weapons before the Droom reached them. I was one of them.
I felt fangs sinking in my forearm while I unsheathed my blade. I stabbed blindly into the direction I assumed my attacker to be, and a feral scream told me I had actually hit it. Straight in the eye even, I noticed when I pulled back my sword.
“Here, Elyot!” I heard. “Cover me!”
I poised myself at Barnes’ back, and the two of us tried to withstand. Night was falling and so did the men around us. Glowing red eyes were all around, while a small group of hardened soldiers slowly formed around Barnes and me.
We actually managed to fight ourselves a way through, towards the nearby forest. We knew there was nothing dishonourable in flight. There was no honour when the Droom were involved. An honourable race would have fought us on the field the next day, like honourable men do. Reptiles have no honour, they only have a thirst for warm blood.
We ran the whole night. I had no idea how many of us had entered that forest, and how many got separated during our flight. All I know is how many were still there when daylight broke.
We were nine.
“Come on, men.” Gifford’s voice broke my daydream, and with a sigh I scrambled to my feet. Six others did as well – we had lost Glouck the day before to something wielding an awful lot of tentacles. We were too numb to even be afraid of it.
We had entered a cave that morning, and carefully advanced through it, hoping we would reach civilization again on the other side. How can you be so lost in your own land?
Gifford lead us with a quickly crafted torch in his hand. Around noon, we reached a large natural cave. Gifford tried to reach its ceiling with the light of his torch, but failed.
A sudden loud bang startled us, freezing us all, straining to hear the source of the disturbance. It came from one dark corner of the cavern.
We peered into the gloom with our swords held at the ready. I gripped the hilt of mine tightly while listening closely. All I could hear were my own ragged breaths.
After what seemed like an eternity, Gifford motioned two of the men to advance towards the corner. Holding their swords at the ready they advanced into the pitch dark. Gifford backed them up with the torch held high.
The cast light revealed nothing other than stone wall. The area was empty.
“Probably a rat,” Gifford concluded, and he turned back.
“Where’s Barnes?” one of the men suddenly asked.
Everyone turned to look at who stood close by them. Gifford did a quick headcount and found that one of us was indeed missing.
Just as he wanted to ask who saw him last, a loud clang echoed through the immense cavern. It was followed by the sound of something rolling slowly towards us on the rugged stone floor. It rolled to a stop just out of reach of the light.
Gifford moved cautiously towards the object to examine it. He knelt down and we heard a strange metallic clang as he turned it over.
“What is it?” I asked quietly while I also approached.
Gifford straightened up and as he turned to face the rest of the men. I could see grief etched upon the Captain’s lined face.
“Barnes,” he whispered so only I could hear.
I edged forward for a closer look. In the light, I could see that it was an ordinary steel helm, the same as all of us were wearing.
Only this one still had the disembodied head of its owner inside.
I felt my stomach protesting when I recognized the face. Its eyes were wide open in surprise and its mouth seemed to be frozen in an eternal laugh. It appeared like it was laughing at me.
“Barnes!” yelled someone at my ear. I looked back and saw that Byrd had approached as well, and was gazing in disgust at the severed head.
“For the love of the Mother! Why, Barnes?”
The soldier was trembling all over and he drew his sword. Barnes was his best friend, I remembered.
“Quiet, Byrd!” hissed Gifford. “Do you want all of them on our necks?”
“Who are you talking about?” asked Byrd.
“The Droom, fool!” answered Gifford. He pointed with the tip of his sword at the severed head. “Who else would do such a thing?”
“You knew they dwell down here!” exclaimed Byrd, while the others drew near as well. I could hear their surprised screams when they also recognized the head. “I demand to know why…”
The soldier’s protests were abruptly smothered when something jumped on his neck, and they both tumbled on the ground. In the flickering light of the torch, I could barely make out the soldier struggling with a man-sized creature. The creature resembled a human, as it had arms and legs like us, but all further similarity stopped there.
Its skin was reddish and strangely glowing in the flickering flames. Several pins were sticking out of the creature’s body. It looked like it was made in the depths of Hell itself.
It seemed to hurt Byrd pretty badly cause his sleeves were quickly soaked with blood.
“GET IT OFF ME! SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME!”
“Wait!” yelled Gifford, holding the men back. “Don’t attack yet, you could hit Byrd! We need to get it off first!”
Two soldiers started kicking the creature. The splashing sounds of their boots made me gag.
After some attempts, we were able to remove the foul creature from Byrd, and we quickly slashed our swords into it until it didn’t move anymore. It can die too, I thought, relieved.
Byrd was lying next to it, soaked in litres of blood. To all our surprises, he suddenly stood up.
“Aren’t you dead?” asked Wode laconically.
“No, I’m not even hurt at all,” he replied.
“Losing that much blood would have killed anyone!”
“But, that blood is not mine, it’s his!” He pointed at the dead creature.
Gifford shone his light on the corpse. What we saw was not some demon. It was a human being after all. His body was a pincushion of arrows. His skin was completely removed from his body and the underlying flesh was shining reddish in the torch’s light.
And it had no head at all.
We found the rest of Barnes, I realized. They threw a corpse on us! I turned around and doubled over, heaving my breakfast out on the floor. When I was done, I noticed an eerie hissing sound coming from the darkness of the cave.
“What is that?” I whispered as hard as I dared.
The other men listened too. The sound intensified and built to a crescendo, filling the cavern and echoing, magnified off the steep walls. Suddenly, I realized what it was.
Laughter! Someone is laughing at us!
“Show yourself, coward!” Wade shouted into the darkness.
I watched in terror as hundreds of glowing red lights materialised around us.
Not lights, those are eyes… Droom eyes!
“Holy fuck! Hold your ground, men!” barked Gifford.
When the red lights fell upon us, I knew we wouldn’t.